Li Si and the Qin Dynasty


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Li Si

The "Historical Records," written by Sima Qian, is a historical account which showcases how the corrupted legalist system of the Qin Dynasty led to the loss of the Mandate of Heaven and the fall of the Empire. Qian, who lived during the Han Dynasty, used the example of Li Si, the Chief Minister of the Emperors of the Qin Dynasty, to emphasis the newly accepted Confucian values. It was the shortcomings of Li Si which led to the fall of the Qin Dynasty as well as his own death. However, Qian is careful to note that prior to his downfall, Li Si followed many Confucian values which allowed him to rise up from a commoner to his eventual position as Chief Minister. These dual lifestyles of Li Si, and their respective consequences, in many ways parallels the two systems implemented by the Qin and Han Dynasties. Using the values written in the "Analects of Confucius," the work of Li Si to establish the Qin Dynasty can ultimately be assessed as a failure, due mainly to his weaknesses outweighing his strengths later in his life. Bearing in mind that the "Historical Records" were written with Confucian values as the ideal way of life, it can be seen how Li Si was portrayed as a good advisor for the Qin ruler, but a bad advisor for China.
Qian begins the account of Li Si by describing his rise from the minor position of clerk to his eventual high rank. Qian makes note of the strengths that Li displays to put himself in such a position. Qian even quotes Li as saying that a man's status "simply depends on where one locates oneself." (Qian 25) Li Si's initial step up in society took place on his interest in others' welfare as opposed to his own. This is a virtue which Confucius summed up by saying, "he who acts out of self interest arouses much resentment." (Confucius 16) When serving under the King of Qin, Li Si looked to the betterment of China as a whole. He saw that a unified China would be a stronger China and therefore chose to support the King of Qin, who he felt had "one opportunity in 10,000 generations." (Qian 26) Through his support of who he thought was the best man to lead China, Li portrayed another Confucian virtue; "'What should I do to win the hearts of the people?

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' Confucius replied, ‘Raise the straight and set them above the crooked, and you will win the hearts of the people.'" (Confucius 8) Li also sent a memorial to the King to ask him to rescind a mandate ordering the expulsion of all aliens. This helped to not only save many people, but to unify the different peoples of China under Qin. These acts eventually led to his promotion to Chief Minister under the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, therefore proving that his strengths as a person led him to his position.
The fall of Li Si began when he first thought to undermine the resolve of the people. In order to ensure that there were no further rebellions against Qin, Li made the mistake of getting rid of all songs and documents from the hundred schools era in an effort to "make the people stupid and ensure that in all under Heaven there should be no rejection of the present by using the past." (Qian 31) This was not viewed as just a mere loss of knowledge, but as disrespect to the past ancestors who wrote them. Confucian ideals say that "when the dead are honored and the memory of remote ancestors is kept alive, a people's virtue is at its fullest." (Confucius 4) Li Si's other great weakness is exposed immediately following the death of the first Emperor of Qin. Li allows himself to be convinced by Zhao Gao to forge a letter to the Emperor's eldest son, and rightfully proclaimed heir, telling him to commit suicide and placing one of the younger sons as the next in line. Going against his superior's wishes and deceiving the people of China are both morally wrong according to Confucius who states, "lead them by political maneuvers, restrain them with punishments: the people will become cunning and shameless. Lead them by virtue, restrain them with ritual: they will develop a sense of shame and a sense of participation." (Confucius 6) Finally, Qian shows the completion of the downward spiral of Li Si's life as he is killed because he gave a false confession to officials. Had he had the strength to stick with honesty and the truth, he would not have been killed.
In the "Historical Records" Qian portrays Li Si as an initially good advisor to the Qin ruler but eventually a bad advisor for China. Li Si was promoted from position to position by the Qin ruler as he gave him excellent advice and encouragement to gain control of the Six States and unite China. Qian shows that he was also good for the second Emperor as he was the one who conspired to place him as next in line instead of his older brother. However, as Li departed from his early Confucian values of being concerned for others and always participating in honest politics China began to suffer. In direct contrast to when he supported the King of Qin because he knew he was best for China, Li Si conspired to put the wrong son in as the new emperor against his father's wishes. Qian also specifically mentions that after the new emperor was in place, Gao forced him to implement stricter laws and harsher punishments on the people; another anti-Confucian act. The second emperor was eventually expelled because he lost the trust of the people of the Six States through internal purges and harsh laws implemented as a result of Gao's pressure. Qian shows, through these events, that Li Si was a bad advisor for China as his improper and immoral decisions led to the fall of the Qin dynasty and the failure of Chinese unification.
Through the writing of Qian, there becomes a very visible difference between the legalist system of Li Si and the Qin Dynasty and the Confucian value system implemented by the Han Dynasty. The very fact that Qian is writing from a historical perspective in an effort to learn from the past is an example of the Confucian system. Li Si is in many ways the perfect example for the people of the Han Dynasty era to see how Confucian values would have saved the Qin Dynasty and how they can sustain their current state. His initial successes, rising from a commoner to the Chief advisor to the Emperor, are only surpassed by his monumental failure to make moral and rational decisions regarding the new emperor and the resulting laws and punishments delivered to the people. Qian actually portrays Li Si, more specifically his moral failures, as the reason for the fall of the Qin Dynasty. What better example for the people of the Han Dynasty under Emperor Wudi, one of the most successful emperors in Chinese history and main implementers of Confucianism, to look to the past for answers about the future.


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